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Lezak's classic finish delivers gold

American turns in stirring anchor leg
By Alan Abrahamson, NBCOlympics.com
Posted Monday, August 11, 2008 12:32 AM ET

BEIJING -- The U.S. men's 4x100m free relay team won gold Monday in the most exciting, most record-breaking, most amazing, thrilling, unbelievable relay anyone could ever imagine, evidence of exactly what Jason Lezak, who swam the greatest anchor leg in relay history, had to say when it was all over:

"People always step up and do things out of the ordinary at the Olympics."

This was even so much more. Extraordinary in every regard.

The U.S. men -- Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak -- set a world record, finishing in 3:08.24. France took second, Australia third.

The victory gave Michael Phelps his second gold medal here in Beijing -- in a race that had shaped up to be one of the most difficult on his quest for eight. The French and even the Australians had widely been considered prerace favorites.

"He's on a mission to win eight," Jones said of Phelps, "and we're happy to be a part of it."

The French, moreover, had been smack-talking before the race.

Jason Lezak storms from behind as the U.S. men win gold and smash the world record.

Afterward, asked on television who's talking now, Weber-Gale said, "We are. United States of America."

"C'est le sport," one of the French racers, Fabien Gilot, said afterward, which means literally, "It's sport," but which, in this context, really means, "That's why they race the race."

American swimmers had won every edition of this relay in the Olympics from 1964 through 1996. In Sydney in 2000, the Aussies won, the Americans finishing second. In Athens in 2004, the South Africans took gold, the Dutch silver, the Americans bronze.

So this, for the Americans, meant redemption as well.

In particular for Lezak, who had swum the third leg on that 2000 relay, anchor in 2004.

"I had more adrenaline going than I ever had in my life," Lezak said.

"America has a great tradition of winning that relay," he also said, adding just a moment later, "All of us knew what we're capable of, but to actually do it, to get that tradition back -- it's a phenomenal feeling. Still, right now, I'm in disbelief."

Understandable.

Swimming is a sport that translates elegantly into numbers, and the numbers from this one race will be studied and analyzed for years to come:

Before the preliminaries at these Games, the world record in the 4x100 relay stood at 3:12.46. That mark was set by an American team swimming in 2006.

One day ago, during the prelims, a U.S. team broke that record, swimming 3:12.23. (Under Olympic rules, the swimmers in the prelims get gold medals, too. Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers and Ben Wildman-Tobriner swam with Jones.)

One day later, in the Olympic final, to go and then chop 4 seconds off that mark is -- well, it's not done. It took 20 years for the record to drop 4 seconds to the 3:12 range. In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, an American team lowered the record to 3:16.53.

But that's not all.

The times in the prelims were so fast that it took 3:13.8 to get into Monday's final. Russia, at 3:14.07, didn't make it -- a second and a half off the world record, and not good enough for the Olympic final. Incredible.

During the final, five teams went under the mark the U.S. team had set in Sunday's prelims -- the Americans, French, Australians, Italians and Swedes. World record-breaking times for the Italians and Swedes -- and no medal.

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Incredible.

But that's not all.

Phelps swam the lead-off leg for the Americans. He swam 47.51. The world record, going into the race: 47.50, by France's Alain Bernard, lining up Sunday to swim the French anchor leg in the relay.

Phelps and the Americans swam Sunday in Lane 4, the French in 5, the Australians in 3.

To Phelps' left, in Lane 3, Eamon Sullivan of Australia pulled lead-off duty as well. He touched ahead of Phelps, in 47.24 -- a world record in the 100m (lead-off legs are eligible for national and world records).

Phelps' mark is now the American record. His prior personal best had been 47.92, at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.

The fastest Olympic lead-off split before Sunday: South Africa's Roland Schoeman, with a 48.17 in 2004.

If swimming translates into numbers, it also is about so much more.

Weber-Gale caught, and passed, the next Australian swimmer, Andrew Lauterstein. At 200 meters, the United States was in first.

Then, though, the French, behind Frederick Bousquet, surged. At 300 meters, it was France, the United States, Australia.

Bernard was off the blocks first.

Then went Lezak.

At 350 meters, Bernard was .18 of a second ahead.

One lap to go.

The noise inside the arena was ferocious.

And at the other end of the pool, the Americans were going berserk.

"I was just pounding on the blocks, saying the f-word, saying, 'Come on!' " Weber-Gale would say later.

"It's not for television," Jones would say of what he was yelling.

"I was going nuts," Phelps said. "You know, as soon as he came off that last wall, I just started going crazy. You know, Jason also said before, 'You know, this isn't a 4 by 100, this is a 400. We're a team.' "

In the pool, Lezak had seen Bernard hit the far wall first.

"I'm not going to lie," Lezak said. "When I flipped at the 50 and I still saw how far ahead he was, and he was the world-record holder 'til about two minutes before that, when Sullivan led off with the world record, I thought, it really crossed my mind for a split second, there's no way.

"Then I changed. I said, you know what, that's ridiculous. This is the Olympics. I'm here for these guys. I'm here for the United States of America. It's more than -- I don't care how bad it hurts, or whatever, I'm just going to go out there and hit it.

"Honestly, in like 5 seconds, I was thinking all these things -- you know, just got like a super charge and took it from there. It was unreal."

Which, indeed, it was.

At 30 meters, Bernard was still ahead.

At 20 meters, Bernard was still ahead.

But Lezak was closing.

At the wall, Lezak got his hand out in front. He touched a mere .08 of a second in front of Bernard.

Before Sunday, the closest finish in the event in the Olympics had been in Sydney, when the Australians beat the Americans by .19 of a second.

With the pressure of all of it on him, Lezak threw down the fastest split of all time, 46.06.

At the Olympics, people step up and do extraordinary things.


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